Rick Bayless answers questions after his presentation; Peter Sagal moderates
  • Julia Thiel
  • Rick Bayless answers questions after his presentation; Peter Sagal moderates

Mod Mex: The New Face of Mexican Food—billed as a “face-off” among four prominent chefs, hosted by Frontera Grill at Kendall College last Saturday—took on the question of what modern Mexican cuisine is. While it didn’t promise to answer that question, it did say that Chicago chefs Rick Bayless (Frontera, etc) and Carlos Gaytan (Mexique), New York’s Alex Stupak (Empellon), and Mexico City’s Jorge Vallejo (Quintonil) would defend their respective visions of Mexican cooking. I expected a discussion among all the chefs, but instead they took turns talking briefly about their restaurants and how they saw Mexican food before demonstrating a dish (or a few). But though the program wasn’t the knock-down, drag-out fight suggested by words like “face-off,” each chef had a slightly different idea of what defined Mexican cooking.

Baylesss fried eggplant with huitlacoche, black bean sauce salsa negra, oyster mushrooms, and queso añejo
  • Julia Thiel
  • Bayless’s fried eggplant with huitlacoche, black bean sauce salsa negra, oyster mushrooms, and queso añejo

Peter Sagal (of Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me!) hosted, introducing Rick Bayless as a “white guy from Oklahoma” whom the Mexican government had named to the Order of the Aztec Eagle (for real). When he opened Frontera 26 years ago, Bayless said, most people in Chicago had no idea what real Mexican food was; they’d see mole on the menu and ask if it really had moles in it. Today, people come in and ask why all seven Oaxacan moles aren’t on the menu. Bayless’s restaurants have been emphasizing local ingredients since before it became trendy—and, just to state the blatantly obvious, Chicago isn’t located in Mexico. How can that be Mexican cuisine? His goal at his restaurants, Bayless said, is to create “traditional Mexican flavors expressed with local ingredients.”

Alex Stupaks tempura-battered, soft-boiled Scotch egg with chorizo
  • Julia Thiel
  • Alex Stupak’s tempura-battered, soft-boiled Scotch egg with chorizo

Bayless was followed by another white guy, Alex Stupak, who was a pastry chef for years—he was Alinea’s opening pastry chef, then moved to wd-50—before deciding, apparently out of the blue, to open a taqueria in New York City. (“Because Mexican food is awesome,” he said.) Stupak acknowledged that a pastry chef cooking Mexican food upset a lot of people, which didn’t seem to bother him at all—”I like to provoke.” He also likes to push the limits of Mexican cooking, and talked about making XO sauce, which is traditionally Chinese, with entirely Mexican ingredients. The result, he said, was not Mexican. A Scotch egg made with chorizo instead of sausage, though? That’s Mexican, according to Stupak. (He didn’t elaborate on why.)

Jorge Vallejos smoked crab tostada

Jorge Vallejo had less to say about Mexican cooking, probably because his English was limited. But at Quintonil he takes a fairly traditional approach to his cuisine, and mentioned that “we’re not trying to reinvent the wheel.” Carlos Gaytan, who grew up in a small town in Guerrero, Mexico, was influenced by his mother’s cooking—which was less traditional than you might expect. His father hunted game and his mother gathered food from the fields—they were very poor, Gaytan said—and his mother would come up with dishes based on what they had. Gaytan said that his friends would come over to eat and complain that the food wasn’t traditional Mexican, but they kept coming back—even sometimes when they hadn’t been invited. Often, they’d show up with containers to take leftovers home with them. At Mexique, Gaytan combines Mexican and French cuisines, which he said means that he uses a lot of cream, a lot of butter, and a lot of spices.

Carlos Gaytans lamb belly huarache with pickled onions and salsa verde
  • Julia Thiel
  • Carlos Gaytan’s lamb belly huarache with pickled onions and salsa verde

After the chefs finished their presentations, representatives from Wahaka Distillery talked about mezcal and demonstrated how to make a variation on the classic Corpse Reviver (recipe below), then the audience moved to another room to taste the food that the chefs had demonstrated how to make, along with the Corpse Reviver and wines of Mexico (I didn’t try the latter, but the former was excellent, and is very simple to make).

Corpse Reviver
1 oz mezcal
1 oz Cocchi Americano
1 oz Gran Torres orange liqueur
1 oz lime juice
Pernod, in a spray bottle
Cucumber slice
Shake all ingredients except Pernod with ice, spray Pernod into a martini glass, place cucumber in the glass, and pour in the drink, straining out the ice.